I clearly remember the drums.
It was my first day as a freshman in the University of the Philippines Diliman; upperclassmen welcomed our batch, the last before UP’s centennial arrived. Congratulations, they said, you passed the UPCAT.
But that was not enough to be called an “iskolar ng bayan.” You have to prove yourself worthy, they stressed — to your studies, to the organizations you would later join, and, most importantly, to your country.
Before we ended, the drumbeats resounded, and they taught us the school cheer. Every UP student knows it by heart: “Matatapang, matatalino, walang takot kahit kanino… Unibersidad ng Pilipinas.” It was catchy, and it raised our spirits.
One wouldn’t know where to begin with our classes over four years. But there were definite standouts — Winnie Monsod throwing chalk at the crowd of unruly students in her macroeconomics lecture, for instance.
Or having to kneel so I could enroll for the overbooked sociology class, wiping sweat before answering mathematical logic on the board while praying the “Hail Mary” out loud, and writing in baybayin for a whole semester for papers in Philippine culture and studies.
No professor ever implied utang na loob. Our teachers — to quote my sister — just “traumatized” us to sharpen our minds. Many of them sacrificed bigger salaries and opportunities to be able to teach in the state university. Ask questions, dare, criticize, build your argument, prove your point. That was what they taught us. That was how we learned.
We read books, from the humanities to political science. We studied the types of governments, the psyches of strongmen. We read stories, especially those about martial law. We watched the documentaries.
They were gruesome, bone-chilling and painful. But they were also history, no matter who the professor was.
We joined organizations to create impact, and we had the freedom to found new ones. We listened to the university’s political parties, and compared platforms across debates.
And these were not just about promised panaceas, like the ones we usually hear during government elections. These included creating collective actions to fight budget cuts or controversial decisions, investigating institutional lapses, championing farmers’ rights, supporting minorities, and so on.
Yes, these all came from the minds of students below the age of 20.
We researched, we fact-checked, we looked at the impacts of state decisions. If we found something wrong, we joined rallies.
We shouted our lungs out, we pounded the streets, we wore black, we raised our fists. We gathered more voices, and it
never really mattered where they came from, or who they were — provincial, LGBT, Catholic, or science geek.
We lived in the very democracy that we studied. We wrote our thoughts, and the best got published on scarlet headlines—the Kule had its way of drawing blood and making it drip from the front page.
In classes, or on the streets, we demanded answers. We demanded justice over the smallest inequalities. We agreed, and we opposed. We respected that there could be differences in opinion and preferences.
But if there was one thing that was common to any UP experience, it was that we always had to take a stand. And we had to defend it, despite a million criticisms, despite threats. We had to argue with logic, not fallacies — without making up stories or
excuses, and certainly without having to resort to fistfights.
We always had to stand up because we were always involved. A Filipino is a Filipino, no matter where we go, no matter where we identify ourselves in the political spectrum, no matter how perfectly logical or dim-wittedly arrogant (or embarrassingly paid) we are. And we have one country to prove ourselves to, one country to serve. That, at least, had been made clear to us from the start.
But all of these, and what every state scholar goes through during our years of education, have just been branded red by authorities. Tagged, threatened, because of critical minds.
Are they in fear, perhaps, of the youth’s voices that take the cheer of “walang takot” to heart?
UP was never just about taxpayer money, or the tears of finally wearing and shifting the “sablay” (graduation sash) to another shoulder. Being part of the cream of the crop and the hope of our land was about defending this country in a way that differed from military or police discipline. In fact, it was far from obeying orders and holding guns.
To me, and to every Isko and Iska, defending this country is about defending truth, the principles of democracy, and the right to freedom.
UP taught us through the years that defending these values, especially from dictators and historical revisionists, could be the greatest honor for any scholar.
Today, we strive to put excellence in doing that service.
No utang na loob needed.
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Ragene Andrea L. Palma, 27, is from Batch 2011 of UP Diliman.